Unlike the tourist offices in Toulon, Avignon and Marseille, which sell their tour tickets in advance and stop selling when the tour is full, the tourist office in Lille simply told us to come at three in the afternoon and pay on the spot.
Since it was an unexpectedly warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in October, nearly fifty people turned up for the tour. They divided us into two groups, based simply on where we were standing. The first group was led by a robust-looking woman with a loud, clear voice and the second by a tired-looking man with a muffled, mumbly voice and a chest cold. I was unfortunately assigned to the second group.
It was advertised as being a two-hour tour of Vieux Lille (Old Lille), so I thought we would be going to the district of that name as shown on my city map. But we spent the first hour of the tour in the city center, within 200 meters of the tourist office, looking at buildings which admittedly were old, but which I had already seen in my first half-day in Lille.
Of course the guide had various things to tell us about these old buildings, but his mumbly voice together with the high level of ambient noise and my imperfect level of French listening comprehension meant that I only understood a fraction of what he was saying.
At the Grand’Place (first photo, with the Vielle Bourse in the background) one of the women in the group asked the guide if we couldn’t move over to the other side of the square away from the loud music that someone was playing on our side. We did, but the other side was just as loud. Instead of loud music we now had loud traffic noise from the one lane that had been left open to motor vehicles after the rest of the square was pedestrianized.
One thing I did understand was the explanation of this ‘Column of the Goddess’ in the center of the Grand’Place, which was set up in 1842 to commemorate the city’s resistance to an Austrian siege in 1795. The statue at the top of the column is called Déesse au boute-feu (The Firebrand Goddess) and is the work of a sculptor called Théophile Bra (1797-1863). The statue caused considerable amusement when it was new, because everyone in Lille recognized the face as that of the then-mayor’s wife.
Here I understood a lot more, but only because I was already well informed about the history of the opera house and could easily piece together what he was saying.
By the time we reached the Hospice Comtesse on Rue de la Monnaie our tour group was smaller because some of the members had given up and gone off on their own. Also the ambient noise level was lower, so I understood a fair amount of what the guide was telling us. We learned that this was a hospital which was founded in 1237 by the Countess Jeanne de Flandre and which remained in service until 1939. The present buildings are from the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries.
The last stop on our tour was the Cathedral Notre-Dame de la Treille. This is a young cathedral. They didn’t even start building it until around 1860. Most of it is in nineteenth century Neo-Gothic style, but the façade at the front (facing northeast) is in a style that the cathedral’s website calls ‘the Neo-Gothic of the 21st century’ — even though it was in fact completed in 1999, a year (or two) before the 21st century began.
When you are inside the cathedral, if you turn back and look towards the new façade, you can see the sunlight shining through the large center panel of translucent Portuguese marble.
An interesting feature of the cathedral is the front door, made of metal in a grid pattern with small bas-relief sculptures at some of the junctions. This was the last work of the French sculptor Georges Jeanclos (1933-1997), completed shortly before his death.
All in all, I was rather dissatisfied with this guided walking tour, but it did make me appreciate the marvelous guides I had had on my previous tours in other French cities.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on guided walking tours.